Notes from Ladakh

What’s your name?’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Are you two (pointing at my husband) married?’ It’s like being in the rapid-fire round of a quiz show. No, this isn’t some nosy aunty in a train but a mischievous little monk at Thiksey Monastery in Ladakh. The picture-postcard perfect monastery is popular on the tourist trail. But it’s late evening and all the tourists have long departed. There’s no one but us, our guide, and the monks (and a couple of shaggy black dogs).

Some 70 monks live at Thiksey Monastery but only a few are around, mostly the young monks and a couple of the older ones holding fort. “Many of the monks have gone to Diskit Monastery in the Nubra Valley to participate in Yarchos Chenmo, an annual summer gathering of monks presided over by His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” my guide Namgyal Dorje informs me.

It’s 6.30 p.m. and the dinner bell has just gone off. The monks’ mess hall is empty; some of the young monks huddle together in the kitchen, while another group has decided to dine al fresco on the terrace.

My husband and I pick up bright red melamine bowls and walk over to the cook who stands next to a cauldron of thukpa — Tibetan noodle soup with plenty of vegetables and thick noodles. He ladles a generous bowlful for us; the soup smells appetising and I’m suddenly hungry. Dorje tells me that the monks’ diet is quite spartan, just butter tea and sattu (flour made from ground pulses and cereals) for breakfast, followed by fruits and vegetables for lunch, and soupy noodles and butter tea for dinner. Dinner is early, usually at 6.30 p.m. after which no food is served.

Table for seven

Outside on the terrace, the young monks make space for us at the table and soon we are devouring spoonfuls of thukpa with five little monks, ages ranging from five to 12 years. That’s when the questions started flying in. Twelve-year-old Stanzin Thupstan is seated opposite me and is clearly the eldest of the lot. He begins by directing his questions in Tibetan to our guide Dorje, who in turn suggests that Stanzin ask us directly. The questions come in a mix of Hindi and English. When I say that we are from Mumbai, all the little monks look suitably impressed. “That’s a long way away,” exclaims an impish one seated next to my husband. He then proceeds to ask if we are married, and when we answer in the affirmative, there’s a burst of giggles.

Piercing remark

Stanzin then narrows his eyes and asks me, “Are you Indian?” When I say yes, his next comment takes me aback; “Then why are you speaking in English, speak in Hindi!” I’m not about to start arguing with a monk, even if he is a little boy, but I do recognise a judgemental tone in his question, which surprises me.

Dorje then suggests taking a group photo so we raise our bowls, and both my husband and Dorje say “cheers.” That’s enough to get Stanzin riled up again — “No, no, you cannot say cheers with thukpa!”

While we are being told off, the youngest monk (who is seated beside me) seems a bit unhappy with his thukpa. He had been sniffling throughout dinner and looks increasingly miserable.

After slurping down some noodles, he pulls a face and walks into the mess kitchen. Since I have finished my bowl, I rinse it at the sink and follow him into the kitchen along with Dorje. The little monk is complaining to the cook and Dorje translates for me — “I don’t like this. Did you put garlic in it?” The cook explains that he added ginger to help with the little monk’s cold. “Ah, can I have some more?” he asks with a naughty grin.

The whole exchange is so adorable that I can’t help laughing. It takes all my self-restraint to not pull the monk’s fat, rosy apple cheeks.

We end our dinner with a cup of butter tea. The Ladakhis guzzle this throughout the day but the salty, buttery brew is a bit of an acquired taste. “Think of it as soup, not tea,” advises Dorje. That does make it a bit more palatable, but I don’t think it’s my cup of tea. We bid goodbye to the little monks and climb up to the monastery’s terrace. The setting sun casts a golden glow over Leh valley. It is an evening well spent and probably my favourite Ladakh experience.

The author is a travel and food writer mildly obsessed with coffee and all things Italian.

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 9:07:46 PM |

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